What do you do when you lose something in space? It’s actually fairly difficult to find something that goes missing up there. First, there’s the problem that we don’t have many resources up there to look with and secondly, there’s the issue that there’s a lot of space to hunt through.
Like A Needle In A Haystack
It becomes even more problematic when your missing object is very small, comparatively, and has no form of a transmitter to help uncover its location. That’s how Chandrayaan-1 came to be missing for the better part of a decade. It was launched in October 2008 by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
Chandrayaan-1 was to be India’s first lunar probe and the flight actually began smoothly enough. The probe cleared the earth’s atmosphere and in November of 2008, it began to orbit the moon. It then circled the moon and sent home data for nearly a year. However, in August 2009, things stopped transmitting from Chandrayaan-1. The probe’s heat shielding began to fail and as it did so, the probe’s sensors started to switch off to protect themselves. Effectively, Chandrayaan-1 had just become an invisible piece of space junk.
Eight Years Later
NASA would solve the mystery of where Chandrayaan-1 had gone nearly eight years later. They used a brand new technique that had been designed in their Jet Propulsion Laboratory: interplanetary radar. They knew that the technique worked because NASA had already tracked down one of their own missing craft with it – the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
However, that first mission was pretty easy compared to locating Chandrayaan-1. NASA had had plenty of data to work with to find the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The radar simply filled in a small piece of the puzzle. NASA had no such data for Chandrayaan-1. The biggest hurdle to clear was that Chandrayaan-1 was very small. It was only 1.5 meters (5 feet) wide. That meant that NASA’s team was trying to track down a needle in a haystack where the haystack was over 237,000 miles away from them!
The Lead That Solved The Mystery
The only piece of data that NASA had available to them was where Chandrayaan-1’s last orbit had been. Fortunately, this proved to be enough of a lead and after a period of more than 3 months of using the new radar technique, Chandrayaan-1 was found. It was the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, California which processed all the data collected by the new radar system and allowed NASA’s engineers to determine exactly where Chandrayaan-1 had been hiding.
The folks at ISRO are very grateful to have found their missing probe. The people at NASA are hoping that the new radar technique can be used for more than just finding lost spacecraft. They think it may also be able to map the moon accurately from earth. This would reduce the chance of losing any craft on the surface of the moon itself.